Friday, September 26, 2008

Polvo. Celebrate the New Dark Age (Merge, 1994)

"I won't get out/ I'd rather burn/ I won't trust scarred survivors/ And I will never learn."

Polvo's patented brand of atonal, angular, vaguely eastern rock fury is one of my all-time favorite sounds, and Celebrate the New Dark Age is an ideal distillation of what made this Chapel Hill four-piece such a force to be reckoned with. The oddly-tuned twin-guitar attack of Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski is some of the most alarming kick-assery ever laid to tape, and the fact that the rhythm section (Steve Popson on bass and Eddie Watkins on drums) could keep up with the whiplash time changes and breakneck stop-start dynamics -- let alone excel at keeping the songs anchored firmly in the realm of the listenable -- is a testament to its abilities. Listening to Polvo is like getting a glimpse into what rock and roll sounds like in an alternate, non-Euclidean universe, where math and physics and gravity don't operate according to our rules. It's Lovecraftian postpunk.

This seven song EP was released shortly after Today's Active Lifestyles, Polvo's second full-length and the album where they really started to nail their sound and style. By Celebrate the New Dark Age, Polvo were in full control of their abilities, and it shows right away. Lead off track "Fractured (Like Chandeliers)" is a straight classic, careening wildly as Bowie and Brylawski trade off anti-leads and pry alien tones from their instruments, bending the notes to the breaking point but never abandoning the hooks that nail the tune in place. The bass and drums here as in most Polvo songs are a big part of what makes the tune such a great listen: while the guitars twist and flail and generally push the boundaries of good sense, Popson and Watkins stay firmly in the pocket, adding some flourishes here and there but otherwise plowing straight ahead and keeping the parameters in place.

The more subdued "City Spirit," with its rubbery lead lines and slightly spacey vocals reminiscent of Thurston Moore, provides a nice breather between the first song and the third, the monumental "Tragic Carpet Ride." Introduced with an electrified jangle of dissonance, "Tragic Carpet Ride" in short order plunges headlong into three minutes and twenty seconds of unmitigated unsanity, an oscillating wall of distortion underpinned by driving drums and pulsing bass. It's a relentless riff fest, as Bowie and Brylawski take turns churning out unnatural lead lines, their guitars sounding terrified and confused. And when Bowie sings, "Tell me that you understand/ Tell me why you look concerned/ Tell me that you know/ Or I will never learn," he could be speaking directly to the listener, puzzled and, sure, concerned, but also enthralled.

"Every Holy Shroud" is another overwhelmingly awesome offering, essentially three or four songs in one. The band switches up tempos and melodies at the drop of a hat, never losing the plot or making it look anything less than effortless. The half-Asian tonal excursions are on full display here, but the grinding primary chords are good ol' steak-and-potatoes rockness. And Bowie shows off his sense of humor and self awareness on this track, opining, "And now we just brought a sitar/ So be prepared/ Apologetic trips to make you sick/ Now I'm toking from this bag of tricks." Clearly a band that knows what it's on about.

Polvo were true guitar pioneers, making decidedly eggheaded, post-grad music that was exceedingly exciting and, most importantly, fun to listen to. And on Celebrate the New Dark Age, all of Polvo's disturbing and stupefying abilities are laid bare. This stuff is an exhilarating math problem that you want to drink to. As a new dark age descends upon us, check out this EP and find a reason to celebrate.